President Trump's new executive orders banning Chinese social media apps TikTok and WeChat marked a significant escalation in the ongoing technology tensions between the U.S. and China, according to analysts.
On Aug. 6, 2020, Trump declared that TikTok and WeChat posed a threat to national security and invoked the International Emergency Economic Power Act. He prohibited Americans from carrying out any transactions with the parent companies of TikTok and WeChat beyond 45 days — meaning U.S. companies and individuals will not be able to advertise with the platforms, offer them for download via app stores, or enter into licensing agreements with them.
VOA spoke with government officials, think tank experts and app users for perspective on the immediate and long-term implications of the decision to ban the two major Chinese apps.
Two Internets: One controlled by US, other by China
Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, predicted in 2018 that within the next decade, there would be two distinct Internets: one led by the U.S. and the other one led by China.
Only two years after his comments at a private event held by investment firm Village Global VC, that prediction seems to have become a reality.
“The Trump Administration has adopted a defensive measure to protect itself. Because the Internet in the world has been divided into two parts by China, one is free and the other is captivated,” said a high-level U.S. official familiar with the matter who spoke with VOA on background.
The official, who declined to be identified when discussing the administration’s thinking, said that China is taking advantage of the Internet’s openness to undermine it, because China has no interest in easing up on the “Great Firewall” that closely monitors the country’s roughly 800 million online “netizens.”
“These two Internets are not reciprocal. The Chinese government with its state power freely uses the tools provided by the free world to destroy the cornerstones of the free Internet," the official said.
The official added that Trump’s order will protect the foundation of a free Internet and prevent the platforms controlled by the Chinese Communist government from adversely impacting free speech outside of China.
Government intervention: good or bad?
In the next few weeks, several things could happen to TikTok. It could be bought by a U.S. tech company, somehow banned by the Trump Administration, or receive punishment under CFIUS, a government agency reviewing the company’s 2017 acquisition of Muiscal.ly, which led to the creation of the popular video-sharing social network.
“TikTok will not be the last TikTok, there will be companies in the future that will be under similar scrutiny, and what happens with TikTok in the next few weeks will have ramifications for future companies,” said Megan Lamberth, a research assistant for the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.
Some policy analysts from America’s closest allies welcome the latest hardline approach by the Trump Administration, saying government intervention is necessary under the current circumstances.
“We do need to apply some restrictions and often even some coercive aspects in a legal sense on businesses to prevent that kind of technology leakage in particular sectors,” said John Lee, former policy advisor to the Australian foreign minister at an event hosted by the Hudson Institute on countering China’s aggressive tech policies.
TikTok, a social networking app for sharing short user-produced video clips, and WeChat, a super app including messaging, social media and payment platforms, both collect extensive data on their users. The core concern from western countries is that the Chinese government will be able to access this data and potentially leverage it for espionage or blackmail. U.S. officials also worry that the heavy censorship of these apps will result in biased political opinions and increased spread of misinformation.
Lee added that developed countries need to bring business communities along in resolving these issues, but “can't leave it to the business community or the market to work these issues out.”
Other experts warn there might be potential backlash from the government’s action to cut off Chinese rivals to American tech companies.
“The more the U.S. advances the idea of cutting off one country or another from the Internet in the way we use it, the more that type of scrutiny could come back and be applied to American companies as well,” Graham Webster, editor in chief of the Stanford–New America DigiChina Project at the Stanford University Cyber Policy Center, told VOA.
Mixed reaction from app users
TikTok is one of the world’s best-loved apps, with more than 800 million monthly active users in the United States.
WeChat, while not as popular in the U.S. as TikTok, is extensively used by the Chinese diaspora to connect with family and friends in China.
“I think my life will be hugely impacted if WeChat is banned,” said Helen, a Chinese international student at New York University (NYU). “WeChat is the only way of communication between me and my friends in China.”
Most chatting apps, such as Line, WhatsApp, Facebook, and Instagram, are banned in China. Currently WeChat is the only “super app” connecting people living in the U.S. and China and offers cross-border payment options.
Kevin, who works in a restaurant in New York’s Chinatown, told VOA that it would be hard for him to connect with family back home. “I know some people who have houses here for rent and live in China, they are using WeChat to collect rent. If the app is banned, it will be a big problem for them,” he said.
Chinese Americans who spoke with VOA, meanwhile, do not seem to be concerned with the ban on WeChat.
“It’s not going to stop people from making other apps to chat, I don’t know what’s the point,” said Stanley, a nurse living in New York.
Monica Xu, Wenhao Ma contributed to this report.